“That’s all?” a penitent, whose confession I had just heard, once said when I gave him his penance. I immediately thought of a passage of the Council of Trent’s Decree on Penance:
The priests of the Lord must therefore, so far as reason and prudence suggest, impose salutary and suitable satisfactions, in keeping with the nature of the crimes and the ability of the penitents; otherwise, if they should connive at sins and deal too leniently with penitents, imposing certain very light works for very grave offenses, they might become partakers in the sins of others.
There are a number of difficulties in applying this passage. The most serious is that a severe penance (especially given how rarely such penances are given nowadays) can be discouraging to the penitent. St Alphonsus discusses the problem at length:
The confessor should give a penance that he considers will further the penitent’s chances at salvation, that is, one that is adapted to his particular condition and one that he judges will be carried out. He should take note that even though Trent demands a penance corresponding to the gravity of the sins, still he may, for a just cause, lessen the penance for a number of reasons. For instance […] when the confessor prudently judges that a penance which corresponds to the sins will not be fulfilled. We know that Trent teaches that penance and sins should correspond to each other, but we say that besides this the penance should correspond to the penitent’s capability. In this way, the penance will be a help and not a hindrance to the penitent’ s salvation. When it happens that the penance is neither helpful to his salvation nor fitted to his particular strength or weakness, then the penance is a poison and not a remedy. And yet in this sacrament, amendment of one’s life is the end intended, rather than making all the satisfaction due for sin. The Ritual says this very thing when it tells the confessor to have “the disposition of the penitent” in mind. […] Gerson, Cajetan, and St. Antoninus all teach that the confessor should impose a penance which he prudently thinks the penitent will be able to handle, and which he will readily accept. If the penitent maintains that a penance is too much for him in his weak condition, then, as the saint points out, “No matter how much he has sinned, he should not be refused absolution, lest he despair.” He goes on to say that it is enough in a case like this, to impose the general penance using the words of the Ritual quidquid boni feceris etc.
The words quidquid boni feceris, to which St, Alphonsus alludes, are from a prayer said after absolution:
May the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, and all the good you do and the suffering you endure, gain for you the remission of your sins, increase of grace, and the reward of everlasting life.
This prayer applies a great deal more to the satisfaction of the temporal punishment of sin than the actual penance imposed.
The simplest solution to the difficulty raised by Trent, however, is the one used by St. Leopold Mandić. Fr. Antonio Sicari describes Mandić’s solution as follows:
I recall […] St. Leopold Mandić, closed for years and years in his confessional, overwhelmed by the sins poured upon him by the penitents. Derided by some because he made all innocent, giving absolution with merciful generosity, and then passed long nights in expiation, trembling with fear for God’s judgement. He had, in fact, sent away the most fragile sinners offering himself in their place: “I will make the penitence for you, I will pray…”
In a sense Mandić did become what Trent calls a “partaker in the sins of others,” but in quite a different sense than the one condemned.